His name represents the Mesilla Visitor’s Center and a local charter school. But do you know who he is?
Well-known Mesilla resident J. Paul Taylor shares the history and stories of his town.
Written by BUD RUSSO
Photography by DONICIO MADRID
To know J. Paul Taylor, the long-time Mesilla resident, you would never expect him to bristle at disparaging comments. He’s just too much of a gentleman. Yet, when a Las Cruces friend questioned, “I don’t know why you’re moving to Mesilla. I mean it’s mostly Hispanic!,” Paul retorted, “You know, you’re talking about me. I’m Hispanic.”
Paul Taylor was born in Cham- berino, about 20 miles south of Mesilla, and last month celebrated his 96th birthday. His mother, Margarita was a Romero from Romeroville, just south of Las Vegas. His maternal grandfather, Trinidad Romero y Baca, was a freighter, plying the Santa Fe Trail. He was also the territorial delegate to Congress.
When talking about the Spanish fam- ilies that colonized New Mexico, Paul says, “Ours was one of them.” He traces his ancestry to a Romero who came north with Don Juan de Oñate in 1598. So it’s understandable he might bristle when someone questions his culture.
But his choice of Mesilla was more than it being mostly Hispanic. He had married Mary Daniels in 1945 and both favored the quiet, historic village. There, they bought a “fixer-upper” adobe, the kind of place they envisioned raising their family.
Paul had graduated from New Mexico College of Agriculture & Mechanic Arts (now New Mexico State University) with a degree in history. While employed as a registrar at the university, he decided to be a teacher. He taught sixth grade at Mesilla Park school and later transferred to Doña Ana school as a teaching princi- pal. Two years later he transferred again to the principal position at Alameda.
“At Alameda I was sort of a jack-of-all- trades,” he says. “The school nurse came only two days a week, so I filled in. And I was librarian because the library was in my office.” Even his disciplinary actions were gentle. “There were lots of reasons why students liked coming to see me.”
His career as an educator included serving as elementary coordinator, and assistant and associate superintendent. At age 65, he retired.
Then, a friend approached him to run for governor. Paul says he told her, “Don’t be absurd. I’m not going to run for governor. I’m not going to run for anything.” Two weeks later, the persistent friend told him he had to run to fill a vacancy for state representative. He finally acquiesced and ran as a Dem- ocrat. “I won,” he says, “And I kept winning.” Paul served nine terms—18 years— in the state legislature, retiring a second time at age 83.
Hearing him tell the story of his career as ed- ucator and legislator, it’s no wonder everyone who knows him thinks the world of him.
The home where he and Mary lived and raised their seven children is not their first in Mesilla. From the northwest corner of the Plaza south to the Bowlin’s bookstore, all the buildings belong to the Taylors. Most of their property has been dedicated to New Mexico as the Taylor-Barela-Reynolds-Mesilla Historic Site.
Anastacio Barela, who amassed wealth trad- ing whisky to the Apache for buckskins, built the adobe home and store prior to the Civil War. The property was deeded to his wife, Rafaela, as part of a separation agreement when, in 1862, Barela was forced to leave Mesilla because of his Confederate sympa- thies. In time, the property on the plaza was sold to the Reynolds family. The new owners made improvements, including the pressed-tin Italianate store front, ordered from a mail order catalog. “The Reynolds lost the property through a loan default,” Paul says.
It was acquired in 1913 as a rectory by Father Jean Grange, who hired Valentina McCunniff as housekeeper. She and her daughter, Perla, had fled Mexico during the revolution to oust President Porfirio Diaz. Eventually, Perla inherited the property and lived there with her husband, a Syrian named Alidib, who left her for another woman. Perla divided the house into five apartments to earn money. Then, in a fit of rage one of her tenants beat her, dragged her outside, and left her unconscious. Perla survived but never again felt safe in her home.
Paul explains, “One day she ask us to buy her house, and we decided to do it.” It was a better fit for the growing Taylor family. Perla built a smaller house to the north and, years later, when she decided to rejoin relatives in Mexico, sold that to the Taylors.
The woman who had looked over her nose at “Hispanic Mesilla” came to the Taylor home on a Sunday. “I guess that so- lidified their idea we were a little strange,” Paul says. Covered with dirt, he had been digging a trench for a pipe to bring water to the house. “Without water, we didn’t have the niceties that come with a kitchen and a bathroom.” The house was also barely electrified. “We had Aladdin lamps, which were not only fashionable, but gave off light much nicer than kerosene lanterns,” he adds.
Besides filling their home with children, Paul and Mary also filled it with art. Paul’s Aunt Laura, who taught at the Yuma Indian School, gave him a piece of Indian pottery when he was five. “I thought that was wonderful,” he says. “I’d never had anything so grand.” That started him col- lecting pottery. Soon, his godfa- ther gave him a santo.
Mary had been a collector, too, before they were married. Together they assembled paintings, religious folk art, Spanish Colonial furniture, tinwork, colcha embroidery, and quilts, which Paul’s mother made.
In the future, when Paul has left us to rejoin Mary, the Taylor home will be open to the public. People will not only be able to steep themselves in the history of the adobe well into its second century, but also to appreciate the wonderful collection of art, just as Paul and Mary Taylor enjoyed it.
I won. And I kept on winning.
– J. Paul Talyor
on his nine consecutive election campagin wins
The J. Paul and Mary Taylor Property was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The Taylors donated the property to the state of New Mexico in 2003. It has been declared the Taylor-Barela-Reynolds-Mesilla State Monument by the State of New Mexico and will eventually be open to the public.